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In the first quarter of the opening game of his 14th NFL season, Warren Moon stood on the Seattle Seahawks' sideline in the Kingdome and contemplated some crucial quarterbacking issues. As he watched Seattle's offense attempt to move the ball against the New York Jets, Moon was perplexed about how to handle his role as a backup. How should I wear my hat on the sidelines—forward or backward? Moon recalls thinking. Am I going to wear a headset or not?
Shortly after he resolved those weighty matters—hat forward, no headset, for those of you scoring at home—the 40-year-old Moon again became confused. Not only were the Jets rolling up a 27-3 halftime advantage, but they also had knocked out Seattle's starting quarterback, John Friesz, with a broken thumb on his throwing hand. Pressed into action at the start of the second half, Moon was thrown for a loop. "It shocked me," he says. "For some reason I just never expected to play in that game."
Staying mentally prepared is one of a backup quarterback's toughest and most important tasks, but Moon can be forgiven because he had started all but two of the 180 NFL games in which he had previously appeared. Then again, one reason he had signed with the Seahawks in March after leaving the Minnesota Vikings as a free agent was the 30-year-old Friesz's injury-riddled past. Morbid as that sounds, Moon decided he had a good chance of getting off the bench quickly in Seattle.
Now, with Friesz expected to miss at least six games, both Moon and the man who signed him, Seahawks coach Dennis Erickson, look like sages. Though Seattle wound up losing to New York 41-3 and was thumped on Sunday 35-14 by the Denver Broncos, the Seahawks' signing of Moon for a relatively cheap 1997 cap figure of $687,500 (including a $400,000 base salary) may have more impact on their season than any of their celebrated acquisitions on defense. "Guys in this league are going down left and right," Erickson says, "and if you don't have a second quarterback who can come in and win—not just come in, but win—you're going to be in trouble."
"We felt all along this was a two-man job, and if we had to pay a premium for a quality backup, so be it," adds Randy Mueller, Seattle's vice president of football operations. "We didn't want to go into the season with our fingers crossed. Last year only one guy in the league [the Jacksonville Jaguars' Mark Brunell] took every snap, and he went down in the preseason this year."
Already this season injuries have forced six teams—the Jaguars, the Seahawks, the Atlanta Falcons, the Carolina Panthers, the San Diego Chargers and the San Francisco 49ers—to rush substitute quarterbacks into games. (Those teams went 4-2 on Sunday with backups at the helm.) Two other clubs, the New Orleans Saints and the Philadelphia Eagles, benched their starters in Week 1 for ineffective play. What's more, on Sunday the 49ers and the Jaguars had to start the No. 3 man on their depth charts because the backups were hurt. Jim Druckenmiller, a rookie out of Virginia Tech who was the Niners' first pick in last spring's draft, played well enough for San Francisco to get a 15-12 road win over the St. Louis Rams. Another inexperienced quarterback, free agent Steve Matthews, who was signed only three weeks earlier, threw for 252 yards in leading Jacksonville to a 40-13 home victory over the New York Giants.
Also, before the first half of the Carolina-Atlanta game was over on Sunday, both teams had backup quarterbacks at the controls. Steve Beuerlein, who has played for five teams in the last seven seasons, was making his second straight start for the Panthers in place of Kerry Collins (broken jaw). After Falcons quarterback Chris Chandler wobbled off the field with a concussion, Billy Joe Tolliver saw his first action since 1994. Neither quarterback could get his team into the end zone—Tolliver had a rusty 7 for 17 passing day for 79 yards—and Carolina wound up outkicking Atlanta, three field goals to two, in a dreadful 9-6 game.
Yet even with this obvious need for skilled backup passers, of the NFL's top-shelf reserves—a group that includes three aging players on the downside of their careers (Moon, the Cincinnati Bengals' Boomer Esiason and the Washington Redskins' Jeff Hostetler)—only 28-year-old Craig Erickson of the Miami Dolphins is likely to emerge as a starter and guide his team into the next century (chart, page 44). His presence in Miami, and coach Jimmy Johnson's stated willingness to use him at the first sign that future Hall of Famer Dan Marino is faltering, could make for a controversy reminiscent of the Joe Montana-Steve Young transition in San Francisco in the early 1990s. "If we didn't have Craig Erickson here, the thought would never cross my mind to make a change," Johnson says. "He has started in this league and won, and that makes him the ideal backup."
Conventional wisdom has long held that such high-profile quarterback controversies are ruinous. "The best quarterback situation is when there's a clear, distinct border," says NBC analyst Phil Simms, who battled Hostetler for the Giants' starting job in 1991 and '92. "If a team says, 'We've got two good quarterbacks,' they don't have any."
Though it may be hazardous to a team's chemistry and salary cap, many NFL decisionmakers conclude that having a top-notch backup quarterback on the roster is vital. "As soon as your starter goes down," Johnson says, "the backup quarterback is the most important player on your team." After the implementation of the salary cap in 1993, however, many teams reduced the amount of money they allocated for their backups, going instead for untested players or out-of-favor veterans willing to play for salaries near the league minimum. Says Moon, who chose the Seahawks over the Chargers, "Now, because of all the injuries, teams are going to have to reevaluate what they pay for a quality backup."